Week 8: Dante's Inferno

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have TWO PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Dante and the Inferno
  2. Characters You Will Meet

Dante's Divine Comedy

Last week you read excerpts from Homer and Vergil, where you heard the Greek hero Ulysses tell about his adventures in the underworld, and you saw how the Sibyl took the Trojan hero on a tour of the underworld. This week you will read what is probably the most famous account of a visit to the underworld: Dante's Inferno. Like Aeneas, Dante also has a guide on his visit to the underworld - and Dante's guide is none other than the poet Vergil himself.

Dante's Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem, written in Italian, which Dante called the "Divine Comedy." The translation you will be reading this week is in prose, but the Italian original is written in a rhyming verse form called terza rima. Here is what the opening lines look like:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
In the middle of the journey of our life,
I came to myself, in a dark wood,
where the direct way was lost.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild,
harsh and impenetrable that wood was,
so that thinking of it recreates the fear.

Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.

It is scarcely less bitter than death:
but, in order to tell of the good that I found there,
I must tell of the other things I saw there.

The Divine Comedy is one of the most important works of medieval European literature, and it is one of the first major poetic works to be written in Italian. Dante was born in the Italian city of Florence in 1265 to a wealthy patrician family. As a result of violent political struggles, Dante was exiled from Florence in 1302. He died in the city of Ravenna in 1321.

In the first part, the Inferno, Dante visits the underworld and converses with the souls of the damned sinners that he meets there. In the second part, the Purgatory (Italian Purgatorio), Dante ascends the mountain of Purgatory, where souls are doing time for their sins before they can enter heaven. Then, in the third part, the Paradise (Italian Paradiso), Dante takes a tour of heaven itself. This is why the poem is called a "Comedy" - not because it is funny, but because it has a happy ending, in Paradise, unlike a tragedy, which has an unhappy ending.

While the Divine Comedy is a deeply Christian poem, Dante also relies heavily on the classical tradition. His model of the underworld is clearly based on many of the ideas and motifs from Vergil's depiction of Aeneas's visit to the underworld which you read last week. Dante was a great admirer of the Roman poets Vergil, Ovid, Statius and others. The Inferno is filled with mythological characters, and you will see many familiar Greek mythological figures in this week's reading. You will even read Dante's version of the story of the death of Ulysses.

Inferno as Frametale

In the same way that you saw Ulysses and Aeneas conversing with the souls in the underworld, you will see the character of Dante doing the same thing in the Inferno.

There are stories involving Dante's Italian contemporaries. For example, he will hear Francesca tell him the story of her tragic adulterous love affair with Paolo. He will hear Ugolino tell the story of how he and his sons were imprisoned in a tower where they starved to death. You will find many references in the readings to cities in the Tuscan region of Italy, including Dante's hometown of Florence, along with other cities such as Pisa, Siena, Lucca, and so on. The readings you will have this week are excerpts from the Inferno, and many of the stories about Dante's Italian contemporaries have been omitted, since it is very difficult today to understand the political struggles that were of profound interest to Dante and to his medieval audience.

In addition to the stories about medieval Italy, there are also mythological stories. Ulysses will tell Dante the story of his final voyage and the shipwreck in which he died. In other cases, Virgil is the one who tells Dante the story of the speechless souls that they are looking at, such as the ghost of the hero Jason who is condemned to hell for having abandoned his lovers Hypsipyle and Medea.

Dante hears these stories as he moves through a precise geography and a precise timeline. You will see him crossing the various rivers of hell, such as the Styx or Acheron. He will travel through "circles" where the sinners are punished, with some of those circles divided up into individual "chasms."

Inferno as Allegory

Another distinctive feature of Dante's poem is the use of allegory. Allegory is a form of symbolic expression, where a particular character or setting or object has a "secret" inner meaning, in addition to its outward or literal meaning. Allegory was a powerful and highly influential style throughout the Christian Middle Ages. Dante himself tells us that there are hidden allegorical meanings throughout the poem:

Take note of the meaning that conceals itself under the veil of clouded verse!

So, for example, as Dante describes these detailed visions of the underworld, you might take a few moments to imagine what kind of symbolic, allegorical meanings he is trying to suggest. For example, what could it mean when the Gorgon Medusa turns people into stone if they stare at her? For Dante, Medusa is an allegorical symbol of the soul being "stuck" in sin, unable to move forward towards repentance and redemption. What does it mean when the hypocrites must wear cloaks made of metal that are shining on the outside but dull, grey, heavy lead on the inside? The cloaks are allegorical symbols of the sin of hypocrisy itself: the cloak is a heavy burden to bear, and its attractive outside is just a trick, which deceives those who cannot see through the hypocrite's lies.

  1. Dante and the Inferno
  2. Characters You Will Meet

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 10, 2006 5:25 PM